Thursday, 5 March 2009

Reality TV & the Will to Participate

Is Big Brother responsible for the highest USA voter turnout since 1972?

  • Youth Turnout Rate Rises to at Least 52% with 23 Million Voters Under 30
  • 3.4 Million More Young People Vote than in 2004
  • Young Voters Account for at Least 60% of Overall Increase
  • 18% of All Voters Were Young
From CIRCLE – The Centre for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement

Have reality TV shows like Big Brother or American Idol - which challenge the audience to vote to determine the outcome of their entertainment - trained a generation of Americans to get to the polls?

Has voting for reality TV, trained us to vote in reality?

I went to a Communications Forum at MIT last week that focused on: Popular Culture and the Political Imagination. The panel included Johanna Blakley, David Carr, and Stephen Duncombe, with Henry Jenkins as moderator. The conversation focused on the new political consciousness taking shape in and around popular culture and raised the concept of the election as entertainment.

With larger than life villains and heroes, a classical “sword from a stone” story arc, celebrity cameos, unlimited interactive multi-platform media, and MC’d nightly by Colbert, Stewart, and Fey, the recent election played out like a blockbuster series of American Political Idol.

According to a 2001 survey of over 2000 Americans (aged 8 to 54): "The No. 1 reason people watch (reality TV) is the thrill of "guessing who will win or be eliminated from the show." That thrill is the reason cited by 69 percent of all reality TV watchers, and 84 percent of regular viewers, who make a point to watch. The second and third most common reasons viewers tune in are to "see people face challenging situations" and "imagining how I would perform in similar situations," stated by 63 percent and 42 percent of all viewers, respectively."

It is easy to see how these motivations for engagement could be transferred to the recent election. As the panel discussed, Obama was able to build an engaging and relatable brand that people really cared about, his message of HOPE was able to become a generic vessel for peoples aspirations and he became a symbol for people apply their own beliefs to. Like many reality show contestants, he started out as just a regular guy, he let people imagine how they would perform in his situation.

We have now been exposed to about 10 years of reality TV. As a society we understand the format, the tricks and what is expected of us as an audience. Audience responses demonstrate a sophisticated approach to what they are seeing that has been honed over long periods:
"The fact that audiences apply a sliding scale of factuality to reality programs suggests one of the ways they have learned to live with this genre over the past decade. Audiences watch popular factual television with a critical eye, judging the degree of factuality in each reality format based on their experience of other types of factual programming. In this sense, viewers are evaluators of the reality genre, and of factual programming as a whole."

As savvy evaluators of our media, we are now versed to demand certain things from our entertainment. One of those things is the ability to participate in the outcome of events.

In 2005, the Super Girls phenomenon hit mainland China. Super Girls is a pop star making program modeled on American Idol where contestants sing and are voted off by the audience. The final episode of the 2005 season was one of the most popular shows in Chinese broadcast history, drawing over 400 million viewers.

"One of the main factors contributing to the show's popularity was that viewers are able to participate in the judging process by sending text messages with their mobile phones to vote for their favorite contestants. During the 2005 regional contest in Chengdu alone, 307,071 message votes were cast for the top three contestants, each vote costing 0.5 to 3 yuan. This was considered as one of the largest "democratic" voting exercises in mainland China."

Audience participation has been cited as the most crucial factor in its success. As winners were determined by cellphone short messaging votes... the show "blazed a trail for cultural democracy," said Zhu Dake, a renowned critic of cultural matters. "It's like a gigantic game that has swept so many people into a euphoria of voting and selecting, which is testament of a society opening up," Zhu argued.

A further comment: An even more noteworthy thing is that the Super Girls have stimulated the will to participate. The SMS voting seems to have introduced a new form for direct election. It is direct, it is convenient, it is fast and it works. It can simplify the voting process. It can be done in a few minutes' time. It seems to be just a technical problem to make it become the main means of voting.

Politics as entertainment has the potential to both open doors to engagement and also trivialize important and serious issues. The key driver I see for encouraging a blend lies in the comment above – Stimulating the will to participate. If politics is entertainment, and people are taught to engage with their entertainment in a meaningful and critical manner, then people will learn the tools to increasingly engage in the debate, in the creation, and in the management of their society.

As we move towards increasingly interactive and pervasive entertainment, and audiences progressively demand the ability to influence and author the outcomes of events, it seems inevitable that we will learn to become more socially engaged in our communities.

Note – I would love to find some more recent data to dis/prove this. Who can help?

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